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Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Fruit friends

  The economy has inspired a lot of neighbor-to-neighbor activity, and (more visibly) media awareness of community activities that already exist, and the way those communities are innovating solutions for their needs themselves.

Foraging for Fruit Gains Popularity (, 6/10/09, shared by a Facebook friend) is an article about looking around you, seeing what you have to offer, and giving or trading it with others. As one participant remarks, A fruit tree is really made for sharing with your neighborhood.

It's a sweet article about all sorts of little personal projects that have blossomed into larger organizations of people picking fruit for food banks, harvesting and pruning orchards for elderly neighbors, and working out elaborate social networks of ripe fruit reporting so people can trade when the fruit on their trees is at its best. The idea expands beyond the community/victory garden in which apartment dwellers may garden for their own table, to discuss how neighbors with private gardens can better share their surplus.

These sorts of exchanges have always occurred: I think very fondly of the coworkers who have brought in baskets of ripe lemons, apricots, plums, and avocados to the office. There are also jokes about how, in certain neighborhoods, you have to lock your car doors and roll up the windows, or in the morning you'll find your car filled with baskets of zucchini and string beans dumped by rogue urban farmers.

The novelty, I suppose, is that technology is playing a slightly increased organizing role in these exchanges, allowing more people to participate than the ordinary do-gooder neighbor could otherwise handle. Another novelty angle may be that the major media, ever seeking stories about impending doom, remained stunned that people are capable of self-organizing for positive reasons. (I half-expected to read articles about 'unregulated and dangerous fruit anarchy.')

If you have more bounty from your yard than you can handle, this article is a reminder to share it, regardless of whether you do that through a Facebook group or by ringing your neighbor's doorbell and offering a sack of lemons.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)10:50 PM

Friday, May 22, 2009

Sucking on camellias

  I'm a tea enthusiast. Camellia sinensis, the particular camellia whose leaves are used to make tea, is a stellar plant in a plant family I have always been very fond of.

Yet, I've always been rather skeptical about one of the main tea-origin myths: that a few camellia leaves fell into someone's hot cup of water, and they were immediately inspired to make a habit of drinking their hot water in this fashion. It just didn't make much sense: it takes a lot of (processed) tea leaves to make a good cup of tea, and if multiple handfuls of a random plant fell into MY cup of boiling water, I doubt I'd drink it. (If you're someone who is undeterred by random objects falling into YOUR beverage, just bear with me.)

I was able to put this to the test. Steven is a gardener, and he had occasion to prune a Camellia sinensis and bring some leafy branches over to taste.

We tried treating the fresh leaves like they were treated in the story: I put about half a cup of them into a tea basket, poured boiling water over them, and let them steep for several minutes.

The resulting drink barely tasted like anything. It was definitely hot water with a hint of... green. Not like clipped grass. Not like citrus. Not especially like tea. Just... green.

I let the remaining leaves sit on my counter for several weeks to dry out. For the next effort, I decided to boil them for about 5 minutes, and to use twice as many leaves (which was hard to estimate, because they were small and dried up this time, but when they rehydrated, it looked close). This time around it tasted like... something green, with a hint of weak green tea. But just a hint! Perhaps even just a rumor. A rumor of tea. Also, this time, the water turned more yellow-green. It did not become as yellow-green as processed tea would have under the same circumstances.

So my evaluation of the myth: perhaps the myth has been altered. Perhaps someone was cooking outdoors, an entire branch of a tea bush fell into their pot of boiling water, they permitted it to boil there for some length of time, and THEN they tasted it and found it pleasant.

Maybe. But I'm sticking to roasted, dried tea leaves.

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posted by Arlene (Beth)10:00 PM

Sunday, March 23, 2008


Happy Easter!

white Japonica camelliaMay the old pagan goddess Easter bring you only your favorite candy, and the really good chocolate bunnies. [Don't think of the lyrics from Quasi's Chocolate Rabbit: "You never know until you've bitten off their head, that they're hollow and the chocolate is bad." Such optimism!]


It feels like spring here, and I'm not just saying that because of the allergy attacks striking down the members of my peer group. It's kind of nice outside! The cherries are starting to bloom! (The plums, both purple and green-leafed, are already leafing out.) Our baby peach tree is throwing off its improbably colored, orange-pink blossoms; the wisteria is blooming up a storm of violet flowers; the azaleas are open; our white camellia is covered in flowers; and there are daffodils in our neighbors' front yards. And I have a sense of wanderlust so serious I may need formal treatment. In a place far from here. Where I need to spend at least a week...

It's time to plant more things!


I have the luscious Seeds of Change catalog before me, and am waiting for all of the other Easter shoppers to log off so my order will go through. As you may suspect, many of the seeds I'm waiting to buy produce edible or fragrant plants.

We've lived in this house for many seasons now, and so we're getting a good feel for what grows here and what does not. San Francisco is a city of many micro climates, and we are on the edge of a valley that the fog blows through. Some mornings, it is foggy out the front window, and sunny out the back. There are things in our neighborhood which will grow on the east-west streets, but not the north-south streets. (Dahlias, for example.) There are plants which will grow in windy front yards, but not in sheltered rear yards. We are putting the micro in micro climates.

As in much of San Francisco, we cannot grow basil. We could grow it in greenhouses, or in cloches (and I have done this), but in general it fails to thrive. It's too damp here, and there is too little air movement. The same with long beans: they will grow, they will fruit, the beans will be tasty, but you won't get many beans. Eggplant hates the cold. Chili peppers will flip you off when your back is turned, even in a sunny and sheltered spot. We can grow a wide range of cherry tomatoes, but only in breezy/sunny spots and greenhouses. Arugula contemplated taking over the world, beginning with my garden; borage is currently conspiring with the bees to take over the entire sunny half of my lot. Nearly any sort of tender green can grow here, and plants like chard (especially golden chard) thrive in the sandy soil, but then again so do slugs. (You should always thoroughly wash your greens in VERY cold water, immersing them for a minute or more if possible, because slugs HATE that, and will let go of their hiding places and fall off. Yes, it's worth it. No, rinsing them under running water isn't as annoying to the slugs. Yes, many of them are surprisingly small.)

We have more than 100 different plants growing in our garden, which was so filled with ivy when we moved here that I didn't know we had a shed! Over the years, we have planted more than 200 varieties of plants (including annuals), one of the subtle signs that I needed to push Steven toward a career in gardening.

Nearly everything edible we grow was chosen by me. (Surprise!) Edible plants that I've grown or tried to grow here include:

-Apples. We have two apple trees, which were here when we moved in. They were very ill, having suffered for years under a thick quilt of ivy. We thought they were dead, especially the larger one, but after clearing the ivy and removing a lot of the dead branches, the larger, fruiting tree seems to make a comeback each year. It's not an ungainly tree, and most people would have pulled it out as soon as they cut it free of the ivy, but it produces small, delicious, gravenstein-like fruit: green with red stripes, which are always very sweet. (The little tree is just there for pollination purposes.)

-Arugula. I could not possibly use all the arugula that my garden could support. I wound up introducing it through a seed packet of 'spring mix' gourmet salad greens, and arugula out competed every other plant in the package. I wound up with four parts arugula to one part anything else. For amusement, I let it go to seed in fall: I had arugula growing as weeds in the cracks in the patio, and in a huge area of the garden. It took about two years to eliminate it. I think I still have several ounces of seeds I harvest from the first generation planting.

-Basil, many varieties (cinnamon, Genovese, Greek, lemon, lettuce-leaf Thai): despite a whole lot of optimism on my part, a big fat NO. (Since then I have heard workers at local garden centers talk many people out of trying this.) I can start them, but they fail to thrive. The best I did was to grow lettuce leaf in cloches: I cut the bottoms off two-liter plastic bottles, left the bottle caps off, buried the cut bottoms in a few inches of garden soil over the seeds, and grew lettuce-leaf basil within the containers. With each plant in its own private greenhouse, it could survive. But the shelter of the cloche made each plant kind of spindly, and it didn't produce as many leaves as I would need to make the pestos I love. And all the bottles looked kind of silly.

-Borage: this is more medicinal than anything else, though instead of taking the flowers for tea, I let the bees enjoy them. And oh, how the bees enjoy them. And the plant does well in my garden: I wound up with several 4 foot high plants last year, and thanks to some aggressive re-seeding, I have at least a dozen of them now. And they're already blooming!

-Chard. Golden chard is so lovely, it's difficult to harvest it to eat. But not impossible. Because of our micro climate, the chard tends to grow to a good size, but the leaves are thin-leaved and strong rather than soft and tender, so they require more cooking than chard from the store.

-Cilantro: yes, and very abundantly the first year. Ever since, something in the garden figured out that the tender growth tastes good, and they get chomped before I can enjoy them. (Last year, the borage blotted out the sky over these.) Even the flowers smell delicious. And just-cut cilantro does taste different from cilantro in the store.

-Cucumbers: no. No no no. It's too damp: the leaves grow mold and the stems break off. Even when I buy live plants.

-Eggplant. Hah! Did I mention I live at the edge of a fog belt?

-Green onions, chives, regular onions: yes, these thrive. And you can just trim a bit of the greens off the top whenever you need them.

-Lavender: yes, yes yes.

-Lemon. Yes! Perhaps 3 or 4 years ago, my friend G's sister gave us a little cutting: now we have a large shrub covered with ripening lemons. They have thick peels, smell wonderful, and are very juicy, with good flavor.

-Lemon verbena: for tea. It grows, and grows tall, but never spreads.

-Lettuce: these do amazingly well. I always over plant and thin, and still wind up letting a few go to seed, just so I can see what their flowers and seeds look like. I usually grow loose-leaf lettuces: this year I will also try a butterhead. Which thankfully does not taste like butter.

-Marjoram: yes. We bought a live plant, trim it a bit every year, and it's lovely. Compact. Sweet-smelling. It more than meets my annual marjoram needs.

-Mint: out-competed by other plants. But I want to try again.

-Oregano: yes yes yes yes yes. It thrives. Which is good, because it takes a lot of fresh oregano to really strongly flavor dishes the way I like.

-Parsley: yes! I'll be planting more this year. I think my current plants are from starts I was given as a gift.

-Peppers: please. I received some purple peppers as gifts and put them into the little greenhouse, and they lived... but they didn't grow, and they didn't produce more fruit than what they'd arrived with.

-Potatoes: much to my surprise, yes. I had quite a few potatoes that had been sprouting in their bag, and wasn't sure what else to do with them, so I asked Steven to plant them near the end of the path. And they grew! The foliage was pretty, and we harvested something like 6 pounds of potatoes. They tasted earthier than most potatoes I've bought (not like dirt, but... "mineral-ly?"), and some of them were very wet all through.

-Rosemary: I have so much of this, I have to use the trimmings to make bath products. It smells heavenly, and the plants are indestructible. Steven has started to cut these back HARD each year, and took at least one of my three plants out, because it was just too much.

-Rue: I tried these from seed for the first time last year. I love the shape of the foliage, and was interested in its medicinal properties. Nearly all of my seedlings were out-competed by other plants: I think I have just one in a pot.

-Squash: I am a massive consumer of squash, and so it would be terribly convenient if I could grow these, and then have the luxury of complaining about how many pounds of zucchini I have to eat each week, or of how massive my butternuts are. But no. They grow mold and rot.

-Thyme: we grow several varieties, both crawling ornamental types and culinary types. Our culinary types (lemon and English) became too woody, so we're pulling them up and starting again from seed this year.

-Tomatoes: surprisingly, yes. But only certain kinds. Steven asked me to stop growing ornamental red currant tomatoes, because they would spread abundantly and block the garden paths. (They are lovely, and make lovely patterns on their vines, but are too tart to really eat.) Yellow pear cherries do just okay: the plants thrive, but produce relatively little fruit for the size of the plant. Our biggest successes have come in our phone-booth-sized greenhouse, where green-striped tigerella tomatoes produced plentiful, sweet 2-inch fruit. (Yes, I initially had "20 inch fruit" written here. That was an error. Don't freak. The plants overgrew the greenhouse: it was quite a struggle to get within reach of fruit.) If our greenhouse weren't currently shaded by a princess flower (tree), I would be growing these now.

If I lived in a sunnier place, on a larger piece of land, I would have a ridiculously large herb and vegetable garden, plus additional fruit trees (avocado! plum!), and a large area devoted exclusively to winter squash. But I'm a City girl, so at the moment, this is not to be.

I'll ramble on about the inedible parts of the garden (and share photos) another time.


posted by Arlene (Beth)3:01 PM

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